What is the punishment for contempt of court in family court

Do you think your ex is in contempt of court? This is what you should know about the punishments.

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Key takeaways

  • Contempt of court typically involves a failure to obey any term of a court order.
  • Contempt of court can also mean engaging in disrespectful behavior in court.
  • Consequences for contempt of court may be as severe as imprisonment.
  • You may avoid contempt penalties by requesting a modification of your order.
  • Contempt of court may have personal consequences that reach beyond legal and financial penalties from the government.

What is the punishment for contempt of court in family court?

Family law proceedings and orders may come with a significant amount of pressure. But if you’re thinking about relieving stress by acting out in court or ignoring a court order, you may want to consider the long-term impact first. Disrupting court or disobeying a family court order may have serious consequences, including financial, legal and, possibly, criminal. Punishment for contempt of court in family court can be as severe as imprisonment, and this article may help you identify actions to prevent a finding of contempt. Read on below for a breakdown of what contempt of court means and how it could affect your life in family court proceedings. 

What is contempt of court?

Contempt of court refers to behavior that disrespects or disobeys the authority and dignity of a court. In general, a party to a legal claim commits contempt if they:

  • Refuse to comply with the terms of a court order
  • Intentionally interfere with another individual’s compliance with a court order
  • Disrupt court proceedings

Contempt laws vary from state to state, but if you engage in one of the above-listed behaviors, you could face stiff penalties. In many cases, a contempt hearing doesn’t happen unless another party in your case files a motion for contempt. This means you may be able to avoid the possibility of a contempt order if you and the other parties in your case can amicably resolve your issues outside of court.

Pro tip: As soon as you think you can’t keep up with the demands of a legal order, communicate with the court. You may be able to request a modification of the order to reduce your obligations and the likelihood of a contempt determination.

Types of punishment for contempt of court in family court 

The penalties for contempt of court may change depending on the severity and nature of the offense. Contempt in family cases is typically used to compel compliance with an order. However, it can also be used to punish actions that disrespect the court and its orders or obstruct justice.

What happens if you don’t follow a family court order?

If you fail to follow a family court order and your failure is intentional, you could be found in contempt of court. Punishment for this depends on what type of family court order you disobeyed and the extent of your disobedience. Your failure to comply could mean a loss of money, a loss of professional privileges, a loss of personal privileges or a loss of freedom. 

Pro tip: Keep constant and detailed records regarding changes in circumstances in your family law case. This may help you identify grounds for modification quickly, and a modification of your order may help you avoid issues with compliance.

What are the consequences for contempt of court in child support cases?

As of 2021, states had submitted more than $113 billion in owed, unpaid child support to the federal Office of Child Support Services. Non-payment of child support is a significant problem in the U.S., and courts and government agencies may respond harshly to parents who are delinquent on their child support obligations. Penalties for non-payment of support may include the following: 

Financial penalties

If you refuse to pay child support, you could be subject to fines and negative notations on your credit report. The judge in your case may also find other ways to get the money from you, such as:

  • Garnishing your wages, a legal process that allows creditors to withhold employee earnings to pay off debt 
  • Seizing your bank account
  • Intercepting your tax refunds
  • Placing a lien on your property

In addition to these penalties, the court may order you to pay the other parent’s legal fees.

Suspension of government documents and licenses

Another way courts make parents comply with child support orders is to revoke or deny professional, personal, or recreational licenses. A parent in contempt could lose or be blocked from getting the following:

  • A passport
  • A driver’s license
  • A hunting license
  • A business license
  • A fishing license
  • A professional license 

Even if the government doesn’t directly block you from getting a professional license after a contempt determination, the fallout from the contempt determination could set you back in your professional life. Many professional licenses hinge on whether you have a criminal record. And if a contempt order against you includes criminal punishment, you may lose your right to hold a professional license. 


More severe violations of child support orders may include jail time. A family court might use jail time as a coercive measure, meaning you might be jailed until you comply with the order. Criminal contempt may also result in a fixed jail sentence as punishment for disobedience.

Please note that some of the same penalties applicable to child support contempt cases may be applicable in a spousal support contempt case.

Pro tip: Many contempt determinations hinge on whether your failure to comply is intentional. If you don’t have the means to pay your entire child or spousal support obligation, paying as much as you can until you get a modification may convince the judge that your delinquent status isn’t willful.

What are the consequences for contempt of court in child custody cases?

If you don’t adhere to the terms of a child custody order, you could face financial penalties and jail time. The court might also subject you to the following:

  • An unfavorable modification of your current custody order 
  • An order to attend and pay for parenting classes
  • An order to attend and pay for family counseling
  • An order to participate in and pay for mediation

Can you avoid punishment for contempt?

In many cases, you can avoid a contempt punishment by quickly fixing the problem that led the court to find you in contempt—known as “purging” the contempt. This type of remedy is often built into a contempt order. For example, if the court orders your driver’s license suspended as a punishment for failing to pay child support, it may order that the suspension will not go into effect for, say, 30 days. Then if you make the unpaid child support payments in that time, your license will not be suspended.

The personal consequences of violating any family court order

In addition to direct financial losses and unfavorable legal orders, disobeying a family court order could cause:

  • Strained relationships between you and your children or between you and the other parties in your case
  • Added stress from legal battles and potential imprisonment
  • Employment issues because of potential jail time, time off needed because of court obligations or suspension of professional licenses

Pro tip: Avoiding a contempt order may be as simple as picking up the phone and speaking to the other parties in your case as soon as (or, ideally, before) you find yourself unable to comply. Modification of your court order may help you avoid contempt, and a judge might be more inclined to modify your order if the other parties agree with the modification.

How an attorney can help

In general, you may face any family law case on your own, but that doesn’t mean you have to. Many individuals facing contempt find attorney advice beneficial because an attorney understands the legal arguments necessary to defeat a contempt claim. An attorney may also help you negotiate or argue for the modification of your court order and gather evidence to prove that any violation of your current order wasn’t willful. Additionally, an attorney may help you speak to the other parties in your case when the task proves too difficult to do on your own.


2013 Florida Judicial College – Phase 2 – Criminal Circuit Track (flcourts.gov); Court Operations and Closures (in.gov); Defending a Contempt Case in the Family Division (Domestic Violence and VASPA) (njcourts.gov); NRS: CHAPTER 22 – CONTEMPTS (state.nv.us)

Changing an Order | Colorado Child Support Services (state.co.us)

Most Arrears Were Submitted to OCSE More Than Five Years Ago | The Administration for Children and Families (hhs.gov)

Child And/Or Spousal Support | NYCOURTS.GOV; Frequently Asked Questions | CA Child Support Services

How We Enforce | Office of the Attorney General (texasattorneygeneral.gov); License Suspension (clarkcountynv.gov)

Custody & Visitation | NYCOURTS.GOV

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Frequently asked questions

What happens if you don’t pay child support?

If you don’t pay child support, the government may revoke or block your ability to get recreational or professional licenses. The court might also impose fines or a prison sentence. Financial losses you could suffer for failure to pay child support could include fines, garnishment of your wages, seizure of the money in your bank account and seizure of your tax refunds.

Can you go to jail for contempt in family court?

Yes. A judge could order you to jail to coerce you to comply with your family court order, or a judge may order you to jail purely for punitive purposes.

Can a court suspend your driver’s license for contempt?

Yes. And if you don’t have a driver’s license, the court could prevent you from getting one. The court could also block you from obtaining a passport.

Can a court suspend your professional license for contempt?

Yes. You may lose the privilege to practice certain professions if you’re in violation of a family court order, especially a child support order. This may happen as a direct consequence of violating the family court order, or it may happen if the contempt of court order leads to jail time. You could also lose recreational licenses, such as fishing and hunting licenses.

Disclaimer: This article is provided as general information, not legal advice, and may not reflect the current laws in your state. It does not create an attorney-client relationship and is not a substitute for seeking legal counsel based on the facts of your circumstance. No reader should act based on this article without seeking legal advice from a lawyer licensed in their state.

This page includes links to third party websites. The inclusion of third party websites is not an endorsement of their services.

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